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A warning about seat assignments for American Airlines award tickets

by on Mon October 13, 2014 • 6 Comments

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If you’re hoping to get a prime seat assignment on an American Airlines flight booked with your miles, be warned…

There’s a big catch when it comes to your seat assignment.

While you still get a free seat assignment, booking a ‘MileSAAver’ ticket means you lose the option to pay for a preferred or extra legroom ‘Main Cabin Extra’ seat on any American Airlines flight.

MileSAAver tickets are the award tickets we’re all looking for, the lowest advertised price of 25,000 roundtrip for domestic flights, or 40 – 60,000 miles for flights to Europe. And the restriction also applies if you book an American flight using the miles of a partner like British Airways for its cheap 12,500 point flights to Hawaii on American flights.

So if you have a big vacation planned with miles and want to spend some of the savings on more comfortable seats you’ll be out of luck.

It’s all spelled out in the fine print of American’s Main Cabin Extra frequently asked questions. And if you try to view a seat map either online or when you check in at the airport you’ll see all the good seats are greyed out.


How can you get around this?

Unfortunately there is no easy way, unless you are an AAdvantage Elite member who flies more than 25,000 miles a year, or an Elite member of American’s OneWorld partners or domestic partner Alaska Airlines. Elite members can select Main Cabin Extra seats as they normally can per elite program rules.

If you’re not an elite member one option is to hope that an agent at the airport will assign you a better seat.

Sometimes exit rows are assignable at the airport, or you may find that the regular coach seats are oversold, and gate agents will need to assign people to extra legroom seats for free. So nicely ask every airport agent you can that “you’d like to buy an extra legroom seat, but the system won’t let you.”

Or if you see no seat you like when you book your flight, you could try going with no seat assignment in the hopes you’ll be among the first chosen for remaining premium seats at the gate. But that’s a big gamble that could still land you in a middle seat.

This customer unfriendly policy is a real missed opportunity for American to earn extra cash selling those seats to loyal passengers on mileage tickets. And it’s one of the hidden gotchas that gets people mad at airlines and mileage programs.

Neither Delta nor United have this restriction, so if you book a Saver level mileage ticket with them you can still buy up to a better seat.

Our advice is if you must book American flights, check the seat map before you book to make sure there are aisle or window seats available in the ‘regular’ seating section. Otherwise you’ll be stuck in a miserable middle seat on a long flight.

Or avoid American miles altogether. They’re getting harder to use anyway.

If you’re headed to Europe, Delta miles are a better bet thanks to improving award availability and you don’t have to deal with nasty fuel surcharges. To Asia, American miles are hard to beat, but at least flying there you can book your flights on partners like Cathay Pacific or Japan Airlines that don’t have this restriction.



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6 thoughts on A warning about seat assignments for American Airlines award tickets

  1. sheba

    Three of us traveled to Japan, using American miles, in November 2017. We had very good seats together that we reserved when making our reservation. We were not interested in paying for an upgrade and had no seat concerns other than the food on the outgoing flight…..which was inferior for a long haul and included similar items repeated during the flight. Similar good seats (together) were chosen for the return flight , however the leg room was shorter than outgoing flight. I have frequently used miles to travel domestically and have never felt that my options were minimized.

  2. Tracy Wilson

    This also applies if you book through a travel company. We are unable to pay for seats together on our trip to London. It was not a problem on our return flight on British Airways. I think American is the only airline that does this!

  3. Judy

    Thank you for this most useful information. I have an upcoming multi-destination trip on AA with the first segment booked using MileSaver award miles. I purchased three other segments and have already paid to upgrade those seats to Main Cabin Extra. I couldn’t figure out why the MCE seats were blanked out for purchase when I knew they were still available. I guess I will have to console myself with the fact that I was able to at least get a window seat. I just don’t recall this happening before when booking using award miles, but it is likely I didn’t use the MileSaver option before. I suspected that was the case, but now I know for certain.


      @Judy – Don’t give up all hope – be persistent with airport agents, but polite, and you might end up with a MCE seat.

  4. Deepak

    Finally a useful aviation-related post with some real information. The vast majority of so-called expert aviation-related advice on the web is common knowledge that most frequent fliers are intimately acquainted with. This post is a laudable exception. Kudos to the writer!

  5. Andrew

    I came across this post after a quick google search! I just encountered this scenario, and as you indicate I’m pretty upset. I booked a reward ticket and a revenue ticket on same itinerary for me and my travel companion. Long story short, I took the a more expensive itinerary in lieu of a US Airways code share since US Airways doesn’t offer premium seats with more leg room in coach as an option.

    The agent helped book both tickets and then went ahead and billed me for my companion’s main cabin extra seat ($160) and told me she couldn’t book mine right now but that I would be able to do it later. She was incorrect as your post clearly indicates I am ineligible to upgrade even for money. Needless to say, either my companion moves to coach and I forgo the $160 or my companion gets comfort on my dime while I sit in coach.

    This is despicable!


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